One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia Of Jewish Conversation
Lawrence A. Hoffman
Lawrence Hoffman, a prolific writer and professor at Hebrew Union College, the flagship institution of the Reform Movement for nearly four decades, has written an introduction to Judaism that is truly of a different kind than the many popular introductory works on Judaism widely available today.
There is a familiar, oft-repeated notion concerning Jews that we are the people of the book. Using this descriptor as a jumping-off point, Lawrence Hoffman seeks to write an introduction to Judaism which imparts Jewish history, thought, literature and ideas through short introductory essays on one hundred Jewish books. Although noting from the very outset that any list of this magnitude is bound to be subjective and that there are far more than one hundred books that merited inclusion in his book, Hoffman does an admirable job of including a wide array of Jewish text and literature. The texts that are included represent a wide swath of world Jewry, including proponents of nearly every Jewish ideology or philosophy that ever played a significant role in Jewish history.
The book is subdivided into nine parts. Hoffman takes the reader through the grand sweep of Jewish history, beginning with an introduction to the Hebrew Bible through the explication of select books and, from this crutial foundation, moving on to describe rabbinic literature, medieval halakhic codes, works by modern Jewish Enlightenment philosophers and contemporary Jewish thinkers. Additionally, he includes those who played a role in the extraordinary flowering of Yiddish literature and proponents of nearly every Jewish ideology or philosophy imaginable, including Jewish socialism, Zionism, communism, and Chasidism, to name but a few.
The book consists of short entries describing each book and contextualizing it within the larger Jewish framework from whence it emerged. There is also a short biography of each author and a quotation from the book which encapsulates its message or teases out the main idea that has influenced the wider world. I greatly appreciated the inclusion of both the historical context and biographical information. Having the book organized in this fashion allows one to read it from cover to cover or pick it up and look up a specific Jewish text or point in Jewish history or the history of an idea.
I deeply appreciated the fact that Lawrence Hoffman’s introduction to Judaism does not merely focus on religious matters but includes the broadest definition of what it means to be Jewish today. As I read, Morrdechai Kaplan’s notion of Judaism as the civilization of the Jewish people was ever-present and this very definition is noted several times in the book. I found myself taking in so much about aspects of Jewish life and history that I previously knew very little of, including the emergence of the Yiddish literary renaissance, the influence of Jewish socialism and even the history of American Jewry pre- and post-World War II.
It is absolutely the case that it is near impossible to understand Judaism without understanding its literary outpouring. Lawrence Hoffmann enables the reader to become familiar with Judaism as a religious practice, Judaism as a culture, Judaism as a philosophy, and the Jewish undercurrents that compelled so many Jews who may not necessarily have maintained a religious practice to draw from the wellsprings of their heritage nonetheless.
In an age in which younger Jews are rediscovering and reshaping their own sense of Jewishness, One Hundred Great Jewish Books deftly illustrates that then, just as now, there are multiple ways into Judaism and multiple avenues through which one can express one’s own Jewishness. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, regardless of background or level of familiarity with Jewish texts—it just might inspire you, as it has me, to pick up a few of these titles I have not read! I wish that more attention and focus had been paid to non-Ashkenazi Jews in the book. It would have been nice to have learned more about the periods inn the history of non-Ashkenazi communities that are less well-known. This aside, One Hundred Great Jewish Books is a wonderful and much needed introduction to the ongoing Jewish conversation.
Note: I received a review copy of this book.
This review was cross-posted to judaism.bellaonline.com